Now in its fourth year, the “New Year’s Eve Freakout” hosted by The Flaming Lips has become Oklahoma City’s version of the television networks’ traditional Dec. 31 programming. “Do You Realize??” has become our “Auld Lang Syne”; Wayne Coyne, our Dick Clark. The orb in which Coyne rolls around the arena is the crystal ball, while confetti is shot out of cannons, instead of merely tossed about by human hands.
The Sooner State’s chief art ambassadors first hosted the ball on the eve of 2008, and after the first two straight runs, the beloved, city-based, freak-rock act added a little surprise at the strike of midnight. Last year, it was a song-for-song re-creation of Pink Floyd’s classic “Dark Side of the Moon” album, but with this performance, the Lips dip into their own catalog, playing what may be their most important disc: “The Soft Bulletin.”
“It’s The Flaming Lips album I hold all new Flaming Lips albums up against,” said Travis Searle, coowner of Guestroom Records. “That’s maybe unfair to them as artists who continue to evolve, but to my ears, it’s the quintessential Lips record.”
Released on May 17, 1999, “The Soft Bulletin” was more than a beautiful album, but also a starting marker of an arc of the band’s prettiest, and often most cherished, records. It was a stark, steady departure from the caustic tones, dangerous spontaneity and general sonic chaos of the group’s previous efforts, perhaps best embodied by four-disc “Zaireeka” — the experimental album that immediately preceded it in 1997 — that required each disc to be played simultaneously on a different audio system.
The ninth studio record would require little more than a willingness to listen, however, and for the most part, people responded.
“I think it brought them both critical and commercial appeal, something that didn’t happen as easily or quickly with any of their previous albums,” Searle said. “There were past critical favorites — ‘In a Priest Driven Ambulance,’ ‘Clouds Taste Metallic’ — as well as a lucky commercial album, ‘Transmissions from the Satellite Heart,’ due in part to the unlikely success of ‘She Don’t Use Jelly.’” Although never reaching the Billboard 200, “The Soft Bulletin” is largely cited as one of the most important albums of the ’90s; indiemusic website Pitchfork awarded it a perfect 10 score and ranked it as the third best album of the decade. Anthems like “Race for the Prize,” “Waitin’ for a Superman” and “The Spark That Bled” won over nearly everyone who heard them, although some aspects alienated older listeners.
“Ultimately, ‘The Soft Bulletin’ was a final straw for many longtime fans who had tired of the more digestible music of this and couple of previous albums,” Searle said, “but moreover, it won the band tens of thousands of new fans that were previously only aware of a handful of songs/albums in their canon.”
The impact may have been greater than that, as the release of “The Soft Bulletin” is arguably one of the biggest reasons The Flaming Lips have the resources and support to do the shows they do today, including the annual “Freakout.”
The act’s latest, last year’s “Embryonic,” was a return to its older self, although some people — Searle included — have trouble getting past the record that made all of this possible.
“It’s kind of the marker between early and modern Lips albums. ‘The Soft Bulletin’ is where it really hits on all cylinders,” he said. “In my opinion, the albums that followed have been great — amazing at times — but none have topped the songwriting or emotion of ‘The Soft Bulletin.’”